Notes Information Apocalypse

Closed Social

Antisocial Networking couldn't have popped up at a better time for me, as I was actually sitting here, struggling with nascent suspicions about the nature of the XFN microformat.

I've been experimenting with a collaborative tool for filmmakers and creative producers, and my concerns with XFN first surfaced in the particular area of the site that involves making contacts with other members. From my research and discussions with potential users, it's clear that many of them expect this to work like MySpace or Facebook. It's what they know, and what they want. So once I got this working, one of my first steps was to experiment with annotating the relationships, describing how they knew each other. Are they friends? Co-workers? Collaborators?

My first thought was that this would be a great context for XFN, so my prototype used a confirmation form that enabled users to select from a series of multiple options that defined their relationship to the person. I started with XFN, because far better to use a web standard, rather than try and reinvent yet another wheel, right?

Well, actually, it wasn't right at all. XFN seemed fantastic until I actually went to test out the system, and discovered that I was appalled at the XFN options which felt awkward and contrived, and I knew immediately that it would be ineffective to subject creative producers to such a crude shaping of experience.

At first I wondered, what was wrong with me? Surely I couldn't be arrogant enough to assume I knew better than brilliant people like Tantek and cohorts? Who was I to rewrite a standard in the shape of my own prejudices? I did try stuffing in my own tweaked list of non-XFN values relevant to the kind of social connections we have in the creative industry, but even then, it didn't feel much less repulsive. At that point, I realized that it wasn't just XFN itself, but the whole notion of annotating a relationship that was wrong. The technology had led me astray.

What I realized was that context matters. Extended relationships, in the context of College friend groups, are very much based on the picture of "Who I went to school with". Adults love to paw at this service, but few will go to great lengths to describe how they know someone. Facebook makes it easy by letting them tick "Through a friend" without thinking twice, but this is not creatively enabling or purposeful in any way. The myriad of ways in which contributors to a creative network are connected and the way that their relationships evolve and change is based on where they are and what they're doing at the time, and is just not well served by the concept of a "social network" as defined by XFN:

XFN outlines the relationships between individuals by defining a small set of values
that describe personal relationships.

This might be ok for contacting the people you went to high school with, or keeping in touch with the clowns you used to rampage at the university pub with, but when it concerns active social relationships, saying rel=friend is just about the most innane thing I can think of. So I'm definitely eating the dogfood, not sipping the champagne here. I just knew that as soon as the XFN interface I built started getting up in my face and demanding that I tell it how I know someone, I felt immediately constrained and awkward. I think it's wrong to try and express values which are based on intimate experience into a medium with tacit social boundaries and clear constraints. Adam sums it up best, when he says:

Social comfort and coherence require that by far the majority of actual feelings
regarding the people in our lives not be made explicit.

It worries me at how often we are being encouraged to accept computer mediated communication as an increasing part of our social lives, yet it seems that the only thing that this social software is really good at doing is affording us the equivalent of a comfortable silence. If that is really true, then why should we bother trying to come up with a positive set of values for social relations?

However, there is one small part of XFN that I may yet keep: the rel=met and rel=me relationships. These might just be the LCD of vulgar online relationships.